Kierkegaard: Anxiety and Stages of Ethical Development

(From work in progress on Kierkegaard’s ethics. In this case revising some work from several years ago).


The Concept of Anxiety (Kierkegaard 1980) introduces the psychological into morality and sin.  The aim is to show the limits of psychology, as much as the contribution of psychology.  Nevertheless, there are guidelines for an expanded notion of psychology, and its role in morality.    Original sin is a paradox because hereditary sin is inherited from Adam, and is the repetition of his original sin.  But original sin has no precedent, it appears to be an unmotivated act of the first human.  It cannot be classified with the hereditary sin in which we might consider ourselves predetermined before conscious intentions.  How can original sin in its hereditary form come from the first choice to sin?  The originality of original sin looks to be in conflict with the choice to sin.

The question is translated into a more abstract form, following on from the Kantian question of how the autonomous self comes to bind itself with the laws of its own rationality.  Kierkegaard has common ground with Kant in that he defines ethics as universal law, and as abstract from the particularity of the individual.   For Kierkegaard, there is no reason why particular subjectivity will follow ethical lawsEthics can only be understood as subordinate to subjectivity, the relation of subjectivity with itself, and the relation of subjectivity with God which is intertwined with the relation subjectivity has with itself.   The problem of subjectivity is also a problem of time, which Kierkegaard deals with by moving from the ‘eternal’ to ‘repetition’.  Eternity can only be fully understood from the subjective experience of the contradiction between the moment and eternity, and that experience is taken up through the attempt to repeat that paradoxical moment, which is the closest we can get to eternity.  Kierkegaard’s answer to Kant’s paradox of the origin of sin in time, is to take paradox as the inevitable and ineradicable quality to subjectivity and experience.

The problem in Kierkegaard, where The Concept of Anxiety is concerned, is also that of freedom of will.  Freedom of will is really a burden to be endured rather than a mere second order faculty of human consciousness.  The capacity to reflect on choice is a frightening confrontation with infinity, since choice is infinite.   This is taken up in a para-psychological vein, again, later in Kierkegaard’s career in Sickness unto Death .  The groundlessness of free will in itself is the source of the psychological problem of anxiety.  What is emphasised in The Concept of Anxiety is that freedom faces innocence, defined as ignorance, with anxiety, the anxiety which results from a freedom to choose that takes us beyond following immediate impulses.  The first order capacity to choose between inclinations, when open to the reflective nature of human consciousness, must lead us to a second order capacity to reflect on choice where we fall into an abyss.  The anxiety of the abyss follows from the infinite regress which must result in trying to explain the causes of those choices made by free will.  A causal explanation can only refer to a particular inclination, which itself needs explanation by another inclination and so on.  If we have free will then no particular inclination can be determinate for a choice, and explanation of choices will become infinite unless we refer to the unmotivated choice of the free will.

The psychological problem has two non-psychological issues at its limits: ethics and dogmatics (that is Christian doctrine).  Ethics itself exists in two forms, first ethics which precedes the psychology of sin as it will not admit the possibility of sin; second ethics which accepts the ideal possibility of sin.  First ethics rests on metaphysics, while second ethics rests on dogmatics.  In this context, metaphysics appears to mean the universality and objectivity of reason for Kierkegaard, which is why first ethics cannot deal with the possibility of sin.   What the second ethics resting on ‘dogmatics’ can do is acknowledge sin as an ideal possibility rather than as something not thinkable with the universality of ethics.

What we have is a commitment to defining the subjectivity we must have in order to have a capacity for moral choices.  That capacity, as is stated in Fear and Trembling and the sermon in Either/Or rests on the terrifying reality that the absoluteness in subjectivity is more than ethical universality.  The attempt to follow ethical universality out of an immediate appreciation of our capacity for free will falls into anxiety and melancholia, and indeed we must pass through that stage.  That psychology is superseded by the realisation of spirit or absolute subjectivity, which is where we would define sin.  Sin can only be grasped from that point of view, as Kierkegaard indicates in a discussion of forms of anxiety which can be discussed, but never to the point of explaining what sin.  Sin is tied up with our subjectivity in the deepest way.

The synthesis of spirit can be deepened as a psychology of subjectivity in its most foundational aspects, arising from a first order psychology of immediate choices confronted with the psychology of anxiety and melancholy.   There is no subjectivity without anxiety, which is part of there being no subjectivity without sin.  Christ can contemplate the world of sin and suffering, in a moral way.  For mere humans, the synthesis of body and mind, the awareness of sin and suffering is itself a merely aesthetic appreciation.

Anxiety itself denies the possibility of a sympathetic kind of morality, though it seems that God or Christ might have that kind of morality of Rousseau and Hume.  Anxiety is both sympathetic and antipathetic, as it wavers between moral law and breaking the law in sin.  Sympathy is criticised as a form of morality in Fear and Trembling where it is referred to as an insult to those who are the objects of sympathy, and which can only drive them to turn their misfortune into the occasion for a demonic immorality and antipathy.

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